My dad and I sat shivering in the early morning December darkness in his new Nissan Sentra. We waited silently for a few minutes and then my dad put his hand on my knee and asked if he could pray for my day. The bus interrupted his quiet words and several doors opened and shut quickly as kids ran from their homes, through the chill, towards our ride.
I told my dad goodbye and swung out of the car and walked towards the waiting bus. No empty seats, all new faces. I chose a random seat next to a hooded pimpled face. “Are you new?”
You could say that.
My family lived in the Philippines as church planters for over six years. We moved to the Philippines in 1997 and moved back at the very end of 2003, halfway through my sophomore year of high school. As it is with many MKs (missionary kids), it was a pretty rough transition for me.
At the time I didn’t know what to think or how to feel. I know I felt lonely and disoriented. Now, nine years removed, I can put some definition to what I experienced, and for that matter probably what many MKs go through.
That first day of school was awful. It wasn’t anyone’s fault, but it was doomed from the start. Three weeks before I had been playing soccer in the tropics, living in an exotic city, and surrounded by a considerable amount of friends. Then I found myself in the middle of a St. Louis winter (my first cold weather in seven years) going to a high school with more teachers than my old school had kids.
I didn’t make any friends that first day. I had plenty of conversations, and no end to kids asking me where I was from. But, I didn’t make a friend. And this was because of me and me alone.
Without realizing what was happening I had become a cultural refugee of sorts over the years in the Philippines. I wasn’t Filipino. But I wasn’t really American anymore either. I was an MK. This happens to a lot of us MKs. We are visitors where we live (on the mission field) and we grow to be foreigners to where we came from. The only other people I felt comfortable around were the other MKs I had left behind.
I want to be careful how I use the word “refugee” because I don’t mean to compare what I experienced with what an actual refugee (of war, famine, etc.) experiences. I just mean that is the kind of mindset I had. I felt like a cultural refugee, having no place to fully belong.
To make things worse I also had a healthy dose of self-righteousness. In the Philippines my family was praised for leaving the States, and in the States I was praised for being an MK. My spiritual appetite has always been high, but that can be twisted and corrupted in the subtlest ways. As a deeply emotional young man it was easy to store up all the spiritual praise I could get from family, teachers, friends, and acquaintances.
Put this all together and what do you have? I was a teenage kid with self-righteous tendencies and a cultural refugee mindset who just moved across the world. It sucked. But I made it suck a whole lot worse than it had to.
That first day of school I found myself sitting at a table with a group of kids talking about sex and pot. They wanted to know my opinions and if I thought their jokes were funny. I didn’t respond at all. It was so awkward. I just sat there begging God to end this lunch, end this day, and let me go back to Manila.
That’s how most of my interactions went. Kids would talk about things they normally talk about and I would just lock up. Frozen. Alone.
I had so many opportunities to make good friends. I was invited to hang out with many different people in different situations from school. But, I couldn’t handle it. I really regret that. The few good friends I made were from youth group. Soccer helped, because I was a decent high school level player, but even there I wasn’t comfortable in the locker room or on the bus to a game.
People from my church, from school, and from my family genuinely reached out to me during this time, but I could see so little of it. Julie (whom I married) was the first person to really break through to me. That was really helpful. She was the first person I cried in front of besides my parents during those lonely days. She has the hands and heart of a healer and God used her primarily to heal me.
At this point in my life (present day) I can be around “sinfulness” and not have to wall myself in (see previous post “Well…That Was Awkward”). I was so afraid of joining in those typical conversations and experiences of high school that I really missed out on a ton of friendships. I’m not saying that I think I should have smoked pot or partied. I’m saying that I should have pursued people, especially their stories.
And this is where the tragedy of loneliness strikes so many of us MKs. We think that others can’t understand us. We want to be understood so incredibly desperately. But people are not meant to be understood. People are meant to be known, to be experienced.
I wanted so badly to be understood. Impossible. Julie has taught me how much better it is to be known than understood. You understand a mathematical principle, but you experience a work of art.
I was a little too blinded by myself to know or experience anyone else at my school. That makes me really sad. But it has been a very important lesson for me and I don’t plan on forgetting it anytime soon.
This is my second attempt to write this blog. The first one was pretty rough. Most of the time I talked about general principles I see in all MKs. Julie didn’t like it. At first I was mad at her until she asked me to sum up what I was trying to say in two sentences (aloud to her). All I could think of was how much I hate MKs. So I scrapped it.
But this isn’t true. I have many MKs in my life that I love. I do hate what being an MK so often does to people. I hate that it defines us in so many inappropriate ways.
I do have some good thoughts on this subject matter of a general nature, but it would probably be a lot better to talk about it together than for me to rant on a blog. That being said, if your interested, hit me up.
Who are you intentionally experiencing and knowing today?
Is there someone in your life that you just don’t understand? Try getting to know them instead.